Can you bring about social change by printing out 500 badges? One man certainly thought so – and his proposal has caused an uproar. On September 28th, American NHS worker Jonathan Dunne tried to make the London Underground a friendlier place by distributing badges suggesting “Tube chat?”. Twitter reactions were immediate, with public outcry at his ‘monstrous’ offer, and a creative outpour of witty resistance badges. TfL quickly announced its branding had been used without consent, with the story being republished and read worldwide. But why exactly has a two-word question printed on plastic circles got everyone so animated?
The London Underground has been around for 153 years, with passengers making 4.8 million journeys a day, but this is the first time such an experiment has been tested. Badge-wearing on public transport is also quite a new idea, with the first Baby-On-Board badge (used to help pregnant women get a seat on the tube) issued in 2005. Did Johnathan Dunne realise he had suggested the unthinkable, and was about to become a Twitter celebrity overnight? The American’s badges have effectively sent London commuters into shock – precisely because they are asking for a lot more than a spot of small talk to pass the time. ‘Tube chat’ forces us to ask philosophical questions about who we are, and how we should live. Do London commuters form a type of ‘community’? Is it ‘British’ of us to want other commuters to remain strangers? And will more social interaction bring about new forms of wellbeing, or increased social exhaustion?
Sociologists and anthropologists have been asking the same sort of questions long before tube chat badges. As early as 1908, Georg Simmel wrote about ‘the stranger’ as a sociological type central to the fabric of urban society. The Tube became the perfect human laboratory for Erving Goffman and Marc Augé, who showed fascination with ongoing displays of ‘civil inattention’ – including practices of avoiding eye contact, pretending to sleep, and the like. Augé claims such spaces only hold together because of a silent agreement to know nothing about the lives of surrounding passengers. So what happens when someone breaks the unspoken code?
Tony Blair famously gave it a go in 1999, and was served a good dollop of ‘civil inattention’ as he tried to strike up a conversation on the tube with the woman in the next seat – who promptly ignored him. One might thus be tempted to conclude that ‘Tube Chat’ is an impossible concept, and leave it at that. However, a number of Twitter users have also spoken up in defence of the project. Daily Mail reporters experimented wearing the badges themselves on the London Underground, and encountered mixed reactions, with many people happy to have a chat, and others practicing traditional forms of ‘civil inattention’. Critics however have been quick to point out that most conversations were stuck up with ‘non-British’ passengers. One Twitter user thus tellingly accused the badges of being a form of “US cultural imperialism” – suggesting that friendliness is not a British trait.
Perhaps the strangest consequence of the badges, is the fact that they have got absolute strangers, British and non-British alike, talking. Sure, only talking about not talking – and not in the designated place (the Tube) but on a totally different conversational platform (Twitter). In this light, there is another possible way of understanding the debate. Dunne told the BBC that the project was much less ‘fun’ than he had hoped. But it was certainly fun for a lot of other people involved – and a lot more so than chatting about the weather with strangers on the Tube. In the same way as Twitter’s 2014 ‘Sandwichgate’ episode, ‘Tube Chat’ appears to open up new opportunities. Opportunities for strangers to socialise through deliberately absurd resistance slogans and imagined futures of ‘Tube Chat’ – creative moments of shared humour that celebrate other meanings of Britishness.